News & Politics

True Tales of Modern-Day Slaves

Despite the Civil War, slavery hasn't gone away. Three writers consider what life is like for the more than 27 million people on Earth who don't even own themselves.
Say what you will about the USA, but slavery has been illegal here since the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, and was outlawed long before that in many states. North Americans tend to see slavery in sepia tones, as a legacy, because in practice it belongs to our receding past.

OK, not for the preteen girl forced to serve the large Orange County family of Abdelnasser Eid Youssef Ibrahim and Amal Ahmed Ewis-abd Motelib from 2000 to 2002 while being slapped and threatened and forbidden to go outside. But Ibrahim and Motelib are on trial, charged with keeping a child in involuntary servitude, facing an October 23 sentencing. As part of a plea deal, they must pay the now-16-year-old some $100,000 in restitution and back wages. In the courtroom, Motelib told the judge through a translator: "We did a mistake here in the United States of America because … at that time we were new here." The Los Angeles Times called the keeping of poor children as servants in wealthy households "a common though illegal practice in Egypt."

Slavery thrives. From Albanian sex workers to Indian cigarette-rollers to black Africans bought and sold in Mauritania and Sudan: According to latter-day abolitionists such as the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, more people -- AASG estimates some 27 million -- are owned now than ever before.

As Andrew Crofts writes in The Little Hero: One Boy's Fight For Freedom (Vision Press, 2006), Iqbal Masih was four years old when his half-brother, contemplating marriage and seeking capital, sold the boy to a carpet maker. A few months later, the first carpet maker sold Iqbal to another carpet maker, in whose factory he joined rows of empty-eyed children who hunched coughing over looms, raped now and then by overseers. Far from home, the laborers "didn't even know the names of their villages … the single room of the factory was the only world they knew." Slashed sometimes by the sharp weaving-tools they plied in semidarkness, "they would have to dip the wounds into burning hot oil to seal them and then go back to work the moment the blood had stopped flowing." Sleeping on the crowded factory floor as those first few months turned into six years, Iqbal strained to remember his toddlerhood days spent splashing with friends in a sun-dappled canal.

Child labor and other forms of slavery are illegal in Pakistan, but Crofts describes a crushing silence and indifference that sustains the old system for money's sake: "Life is cheap in Lahore." One night Iqbal managed to flee through a window and find a policeman, whom he begged to arrest the factory boss. Instead, the cop brought him back to be punished by being hung upside down from a twirling ceiling fan. Escaping again, Iqbal lived on the street eating slops -- "a small boy flitting in and out of the shadows like a night insect," ventures Crofts, a British ghostwriter who under other bylines has written celebrity "autobiographies" and who recounts Iqbal's saga in passages by turns preachy and pretty ("a fanfare of horn blasts"; "a maze of towering walls"), but ever-earnest. How else, anyway, could you tell the true tale of someone the world imagines exists only in history books: a slave, born in 1982?

At a rally whose printed banners looked like mere squiggles to him, Iqbal discovered the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), an India-based NGO at whose Lahore Freedom Campus he and other ex-slaves slept serenely behind steel gates and learned "to read and write, to add up numbers, so [they] can get proper jobs." As the school's most outspoken crusader, joining rescue-raids on factories whose chattel escaped onto BLLF trucks shouting, "We are free," adolescent Iqbal gained international fame, winning a $10,000 Reebok Foundation Youth in Action Award at age 12. A few months later, he was gunned down while riding a bicycle in the Pakistani countryside. This isn't a spoiler, so don't say I've ruined your surprise. Croft starts his book with the death scene. The rest is in flashback. BLLF maintains that Iqbal was assassinated by a "carpet-mafia" hitman. Pakistani officials contend that the slaying was unrelated to Iqbal's activism, but that he mocked a farm worker whom he discovered having sex with a donkey, and the farm worker shot him.

Thanks largely to corporate giant Reebok -- and ABC News, which named him its Person of the Week -- Iqbal Masih became a household name, at least among Western confabs such as myhero.com and freethechildren.org, and in Western classrooms where his story has spawned countless antislavery assignments. By contrast, most unpaid laborers live and die in total obscurity, picking coffee beans in Benin, planting pipelines in Burma, scrubbing floors in Paris and sucking dick everywhere undreamed-of, which of course is the whole point of not paying them. Tourists snap temple photos. Shoppers simper over diamonds and silk. It's so easy not to imagine the loom, the plough, the Chinese prison yard where petty thieves and Falun Gongers paint Easter toys and knit sweaters all night for the Western world. Let a hundred boycotts bloom. But still.

It's the undocumented-immigrant sex trade that Juan Bonilla skewers in his novel "The Nubian Prince" (Metropolitan, 2006). Its narrator, Moisés Calderón, the restless intellectual twentysomething son of suicidal parents, travels far and wide as a scout for Club Olympus, the world's most exclusive hot box. Its "boys and girls … serve as companions or pets" to fantastically rich clients who pay 600 euros for actual acts and another 300 for "image rights": memories, jackoff-fodder -- "You know," Moiss explains with the shimmering boredom that Bonilla nails so well, "all the fantasy sex the clients will have after it's over."

Telling themselves that they're technically saving lives, Club Olympus scouts snatch radiant prey -- the "boys and girls," the "merchandise," the "pieces" -- from among the wretched refuse of the world's teeming shores. Boat people, dump-dwelling ragpickers, runaways and stowaways and throwaways, the dross of earthquakes and economic collapse: "I once succeeded in persuading a pair of Romanian shantytown dwellers to sell me their son … it's high season for shipwrecked refugees along the coast, and Brazil looks like it's about to go belly-up and that really is like taking candy from a baby, Brazil." Trained to perform, belted during off-hours with devices applying electrical charges to waists and thighs "so their muscles wouldn't relax for a single moment … and they wouldn't have to spend too much time in the gym in preparation for the moment when their bodies would be unveiled," the luscious Africans and Albanians and Argentineans that Moiss hauls in "transform … into machines."

It's fiction, a morally crisp saltwater dip of a summer read and, give or take a few electric belts, it reflects reality. Unknown numbers of kids were abducted and seduced right off the beach to be sold on the international sex and forced-labor markets after 2004's tsunami made them orphans. The Indonesian Social Welfare Ministry passed a law prohibiting the removal of anyone under age 16 from the islands. Too late.

Too late for the tiny whores, for Haitian cane-cutters, for anyone in Cambodia, Cuba, Qatar, Jamaica, Togo, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Kuwait, North Korea, Ecuador, Bolivia, Burma, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, which the U.S. Department of State cites as "Tier 3" nations that fail to comply with basic standards outlined in its annual "Trafficking in Persons" report. By the time we hear about cases -- or entire industries, such as the UAE's programs for buying boys from parents and turning them into camel jockeys -- it's always too late: not for tomorrow, but tell that to yesterday's HIV-positive 9-year-old amputee.

Americans, enslaved? Laughed at and lashed, left to die where they fell? Not in Southern plantations, pre-1865, but within modern memory, right around when Eric Clapton and Bob Marley and Divine were being born. We weren't supposed to know about this one, because the U.S. military -- ashamed, or eager to let bygones be bygones -- barely investigated the strange chapter of World War II which Roger Cohen probes in Soldiers and Slaves (Anchor, 2006). Its perpetrators were identified but served arguably light sentences. Reentering the real world bruised and paranoid, those who had survived were asked to keep mum.

In early 1945, the Wehrmacht sent 350 American POWs via cattle car to Berga, a concentration camp near Leipzig, where they joined legions of Eastern European Jews -- transferred there from Buchenwald -- in digging tunnels toward a planned underground fuel facility. Chosen because they were Jewish or, in some cases, looked Jewish, or got otherwise unlucky, the POWs were starved, systematically beaten, and sent to work with jackhammers through an East German winter and spring. "In coal mining, you spit black, but here you'd be spitting your lungs out," a survivor recalled. "Bloody." It was "a work-to-death program," another remembers realizing.

Geneva Conventions, ha ha ha, in a landscape that Cohen conjures with terse fury as "a madhouse filled with lost humanity," whose natives bore "a knowledge carried in the bones and so terrible as to be indelible, an awareness of a kind of collective suicide. … The European continent was dying." As one by one they neared death, these 19-year-old ex-students from Brooklyn and Detroit "were withdrawn, silent, their skin taut, their mouths open, and they made no attempt to remove the black dust and fecal matter that clung to them." Passing one corpse, a guard was overheard telling his companion: "Don't worry, it's just another American Jew." Pistol-whipping. Gangrene. Reaching into latrines to retrieve tempting potato peels. As "Nazi" becomes the 21st century's new N-word, popping up everywhere, it's sobering to be reminded of real Nazis and what they did.

One Berga survivor, now a retired obstetrician, has nightmares. He imagines his captors, his slavers, "enjoying hearty meals and embracing their children. Where inside them had they put the crime?"

Ask that 27 million times, over coffee, wearing a diamond ring.
Photo credit: (c) Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department. Courtesy of Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
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